40 Years

A week ago, I celebrated my 40th birthday.

I remember when my mom turned 40. Her sisters arranged a special surprise – we woke up to find a flamboyance of 40 pink plastic flamingos roosting on our front lawn and a sign saying “Honk! Stephy’s turning 40!” to encourage all drivers passing by to pay homage. Her birthday party that evening was filled with “Over the Hill” decorations and gag gifts. I can’t recall if I gave her a pair of dentures or a cane.

My own 40th birthday was not quite so outrageous. The pandemic put a bit of a damper on the celebration I had originally envisioned (a rooftop extravaganza) but it was still a day spent with family and friends (on the phone and online), and it was topped off with a barbecue in the evening with community and five very special guests (our first guests since the pandemic began!). Lots of food and conversation and laughter, and of course, cake.

While I have no qualms about turning 40, celebrating my birthday always reminds me that the summer is passing. It’s surprising how quickly this summer is moving along. March and April were painfully slow in passing but since then, time has sped up enormously. Thankfully, it has been filled with many good things.

For one, I made a book! Not a professionally published book but a self-made book of a number of posts from this blog spanning my first three years with the congregation. It was a project that I had on my ‘To Do’ list for a long time and finally did it. I am really pleased with the result. It’s a lovely memento but also, I hope, I’ll be able to share it with women who are discerning a vocation to religious life. They might appreciate to hear one woman’s experience of discernment.

This month I’ve been in UN mode. Earlier in the year, I was named regional representative to our UN NGO – collaborating with our CJ and IBVM representatives at our NGO in New York – which I am delighted about and which has already been so much fun. I spent two weeks of July glued to my laptop, watching meetings of the High Level Political Forum, and participating in side events on financing for development, child abuse online, and climate change. Now I’m working with the NGO Working Group on Girls and contributing to planning for activities for the International Day of the Girl on October 11th. It’s energizing to be engaged in this work again.

I’ve also been working on research for a comprehensive paper that is part of my theology studies. I’ve been reading about children’s rights and religious freedom, the spiritual and religious development of the child, and ecclesial and sacramental engagement of children. There’s lots to explore and it has been fascinating to do some reading on these topics. I’m grateful to have the time to devote to it and to be able to explore interesting tangents and ideas.

The day after my birthday, I gave my first-ever homily/reflection as part of St. Basil’s parish online Gathering series. I really enjoyed the process of preparing the homily, and though I was nervous about the delivery, it went well, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to do something similar again in the future.

Finally, I’ve been re-visiting last year’s Mary Ward Summer School – reading Mary Ward’s letters again, and adding in some of St. Ignatius’ letters. I’m finding so much that inspires and consoles and challenges and, above all, so much that reminds me of what my vocation is all about and what has attracted me to it. This little extract has given me another way to look at this time of the pandemic:

I would wish you every well-being and prosperity imaginable that might help you in promoting the service and glory of God Our Lord. However, then I think that these illnesses and other temporal mishaps frequently come from the hand of God our Lord so that we have greater self-knowledge and a diminished love for created things, along with a deepened realization of the brevity of this life of ours. In that way we can equip ourselves for the next life which is to last for ever.
    ~ Ignatius of Loyola, Letter to Isabel Roser, 1532

Of course, in between all of these projects, I’ve spent lots of time on the roof, enjoying the sun and an occasional dip in the pool, reading and relaxing on the lounge chairs (I need more Ted Chiang!), watching the new Babysitters Club series on Netflix (so good – somehow both nostalgic and modern – and brings back lots of memories of reading the BSC books), watching Singy Songy Sessions by the marvellously delightful Kate Rusby, and walking a virtual camino.

And now…I’m going on retreat! A very different experience this year to be sure – a Zoom retreat from my bedroom – but I have no doubt that this 4-day retreat with the “Under 55ish” group of religious across Canada will be just what is needed. Time to reflect and rest and give thanks for these 40 years.

 

Learning from the Monks

Credit: The British Library
Copyright: ©The British Library Board

It’s challenging to live under these extended quarantine conditions. Whatever novelty there might have been in the beginning has long since worn off. I continue to be anxious about the state of the world and to pray for the many people who are suffering and for those who care for them and who keep our society running. But I am also experiencing psychological fatigue. One day I am feeling up and the next day I am feeling down.

In the midst of this angst, however, I watched an online retreat/talk given by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI in which he presented principles from his new book Domestic Monastery. I find them particularly apt for this pandemic experience and they are helping me to change my attitude. 

The principles are derived from the Rule of St. Benedict, and lessons from other monks and mystics. For me, they offer an alternative viewpoint that is liberating and helps me to imagine a way to get through this temporary time of forced enclosure. 

Ten Principles for Turning Your Home into a Domestic Monastery

“Regulate your life by the monastic bell”
While I do live in a religious community, we do not live by the monastic bell. We do, however, especially in this pandemic time, have a fairly set schedule of activities – particularly prayer and meal times. My monastic bell is also the schedule I set for myself each day – exercise, work on my theology studies, cooking, connecting with family and friends, etc. It helps to find order and flow in the day. It is also intended to remind me that my time belongs to God and not to me. This helps me to find balance, to set boundaries, and to be able to move freely from one activity to the next.

Stay inside your cell”
Rolheiser suggests that this phrase, for us non-monks, means being faithful to our commitments. To stray away from these things is to leave our cell. For me, this means staying faithful to my religious vocation but also to the commitments I have made that have become more challenging to meet during the pandemic. This includes community life, studies, academic committee work, and ministries that have moved online, as well as finding ways to keep in touch with loved ones and to communicate regularly during this time of distancing. 

“Let your cell teach you everything you need to know”
I find this principle a hard one to live out. Rolheiser says that our fidelity to our commitments will teach us what we need to know. This is a challenge for me. Right now, I feel a lot of resistance and resentment build up because of this forced enclosure. My cell, i.e. school, community, family/friends, ministry, etc. is often teaching me things I’d rather not know – about myself in particular, but also about others, and about the world. Rolheiser says that these things force us to “grow up,” to become more mature, and I suspect, to be more effective agents of God’s love. I take hope that during this pandemic, the moments in which I struggle most with resistance are the moments in which I will be able to experience the greatest transformation.

“Ora” – pray
This is essential. Given my current position of comfort and good health and well-being, committing to prayer is one way that I am able go beyond myself and my environment when it is so easy to stay locked within. Praying for the world – for all who are sick and dying, for all those who care for them, for those who continue to serve our society, for those who struggle with financial insecurity and lack of employment, and for everyone who struggles to cope in this uncertain environment. All of these needs of the world draw me out of my selfishness and my limited perspective and force me to encounter the greater reality of this pandemic. 

“Labora” – work
This principle is all too easy for me. My default setting is to work (at least on the things that I am interested in) and I have been able to find many things to keep occupied during this time. However, work is not meant for work’s sake. Work is meant to remind me of my vocation as a human being to serve God in all that I do. This is something I need to keep calling to mind when I get absorbed in what I am doing and am tempted to forgo other activities in order to keep working on a project.

Live in quiet – be in touch with “the mild”
a. Be in touch with what is gentle inside of yourself, others, the world, God
b. Be in touch with nature
c. Be in touch with your food
Living in the quiet has been both calming and unnerving. To live in a quiet Toronto has been very strange even though it is a necessary measure. Within the confines of my home, this principle speaks to me primarily of being quiet within, of seeking a gentleness of heart in a stressful time that tends to bring out the worst in me. It’s a reminder to be gentle with each person in my life and also with myself. Being open to receive the gentleness of God, especially when I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Rolheiser’s sub-points b. and c. remind me to appreciate the natural world around me, especially when I go out for a walk in the neighbourhood, and to appreciate and enjoy the food that I am blessed with each day. 

Understand your family as a “school of charity”
This principle relates to the third principle: “Let your cell teach you everything you need to know.” This experience of the pandemic is a teacher and I am definitely a student. Because this situation seems to frequently bring out the worst in me, I also need to at least try to let it bring out the best in me, too. In his presentation, Rolheiser speaks of a stone being polished by other stones. The little irritations I feel each day, then, if opened up to God’s grace, can polish me as well.

Do “vigils” when the angel of the night summons you
Rolheiser refers to the angel of the night as the grudges, resentments, and unresolved tensions that surface at night and either keep us from sleep or wake us from it. Certainly, these days I feel like the angel of the night is a frequent visitor as I struggle to sleep well. I continue to wake up in the night and to worry about all of the “what ifs” and I battle with the resistances I feel in not being able to live as I would like. It is time to do “vigils” – to confront and find a way to make peace with the angel that disrupts my sleep.

“Celebrate” the joys, particularly the joys of community and simple living – but all the joys of life
This is an important principle for these difficult days. It can be easy to focus on the negative right now and to discount the positive. I know that I struggle to allow myself to really celebrate when so many people are grieving, but I think it is necessary. I resolve to find more opportunities to create, celebrate and embrace moments of joy during this time of confinement – simple pleasures like eating lunch on our rooftop patio, watching the tulips bloom in our front garden, and laughing with family and friends over Zoom. 

“Persevere” – give your family the gift of your fidelity
Perseverance is probably the most necessary guiding principle right now. I must remain faithful to what needs to be done: staying at home, washing hands, and practicing physical distancing, especially when I am tempted to slack off because I am bored, or lonely, or just tired of following rules. Perseverance is assisted by love: being motivated by love for others pushes me to go beyond and do what I might not do solely for myself. 

These principles, while not easy to live by, are helpful to me, especially during this time of uncertainty. They have given me much to reflect on, to change my perspective on what it means to live within restriction, and to find a way to navigate through the doom and gloom that rises in my heart when I am not attentive. There is much wisdom to be learned from these monks.

Living amid the pandemic

Like many others, I’ve been glued to the news. Over and over again, I’ve heard the words unprecedented and never before used to describe the life we are now living amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We have entered into a time of intense global solidarity that is brand new for most generations alive today. It feels like a moment of great historical significance. We, as a global society, have the potential to be transformed into something new and better than we were before. But we don’t know where we are in all of this. We could be at the beginning of this pandemic or we could be nearing the end. It’s important to pay attention to the shifts and changes around the world and to who we are and how we are living in this time of uncertainty.

As the pandemic has progressed, I’ve noticed significant interior movements within myself. Three weeks ago, I was merely fascinated by what was going on. Having worked previously for the Public Health Agency of Canada and participated in a response to disease outbreak ten years ago, I was captivated by the evolving response efforts. I was nostalgic for my old job and I was in awe of what seemed to be a very smooth unfolding of a coordinated response across the country. 

As the crisis has continued to heighten, however, and we’ve entered into a state of emergency, my fascination has turned to worry and anxiety. Family members have been impacted by job losses, so many people continue to become sick and to die. The hypothetical has become very real and the real is scary. As a result, I’ve been struggling to sleep at night. I’ve often woken up early in the morning with panicked thoughts of people in hospital ICUs gasping for breath, of families struggling to make ends meet because of lack of income, of people on the streets becoming ill with nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

I am coping by doing what we are supposed to do: social distancing and connecting with people virtually. I’m focusing on completing my schoolwork. I’m praying with my community and doing my part to take care of them and myself. I’m not able to go out and volunteer as I am accustomed to doing, but I can prepare food for the homeless and give to the organizations that serve them and others in need. It doesn’t feel like enough but it’s all I can do in this moment. I am so grateful to those who are able to be present to people in need right now.

Gradually, my worries and anxieties are being relieved, or at least, better managed. They are embedded in my personal prayer and in my community’s communal prayer. They motivate the little actions I take each day to contribute to the overall sense of goodness in the world. For the past several days, I have felt a sense of steadiness. Not a complacency, but a stability and a quiet trust.  

The truth is that this time is a jumble. It is simultaneously a time of all sorts of things. It is a time of suffering: of anguish over rising illness and death, of economic devastation, and separation from loved ones. It is also a time of blessing: of connection and unexpected tenderness found in emails and phone calls, in the outpouring of gifts from musicians and artists to bolster our spirits, and the celebrations of daily life (birthdays, anniversaries and feast days). It is definitely a time of disruption and adjustment as our routines change and we figure out new ways to live, even if only temporarily. It is, I hope, a time of greater introspection and reflection: what does it mean to be human today?

Finally, what brings me the most hope and joy in this time of global suffering is the discovery of all of the diverse ways, large and small, that we can do good together, for each other, and that we are doing it an unprecedented way.